I held him close to me and looked into his eyes. They were deeply sunken in, if it's possible for something so small to be deeply anything. They watched me, though, curious, and seemingly oblivious to their own sunken-in state.
He is 10-1496. My first turtle.
Well, the family had a "pet" turtle when I was a kid. I think he was just a turtle who happened to live in our yard, and I would hang out with him when I was out there. In kid time, it seemed like we had him forever, but it was probably just a few days.
And then there was Floyd. I awoke from a nap to stare into the suspended face of Floydtheturtle staring back at me, Ismail standing behind him, "Can I keep him?" We bought him all the necessary accouterment, according to the PetSmart people, but we kept finding him upside down, limbs limp and hanging out, neck bent back... We would right him, and he would perk up a bit and hang out, but in a couple of days he had died. We assume he was dying when we got him because he had not hibernated appropriately that year.
But this was my first legit turtle. 10-1496. And he was dehydrated.
Hence began my first shift at the Triangle Wildlife Rescue Clinic. In the coming months, over 1,000 baby birds will find their way here, having been rescued from cut-down trees, unfortunate falls from the nest, and a myriad other fates that bring birds to the attention of their human cohabitants, and the babies will come through here needing to be fed every 15 minutes for 20 hours of the day. They start in little "nests" made of plastic baskets lined with paper towels, and then graduate to fledgling cages, pre-flight cages, flight cages, and eventual release as close as possible to where they came from.
But on this day, it was too early in the season for the birds, and so here I was, caring for the ten turtles who have been rehabbing here since last year. Turtle shells regenerate, and significant shell injuries can heal over time, but they grow slowly and need a long recovery period. And even once they are healed and nature-ready, timing is important: we can't release them when they should be hibernating, so they convalesce for months at the TWRC.
The senior volunteer training me showed me the turtle medical records, in green folders (as opposed to purple for mammals and yellow for birds), and went over the "turtle protocol" with me. These are turtles, people--the medical records are WET. I smile as I realize that no matter where I go, I can't get away from documentation requirements. Ask any social worker you know--we're ALL behind on our notes!!
But like all good medical records, this one has a mini mental status exam on it. The senior volunteer says, in all honesty, "Mark here whether the turtle is bright, alert, and responsive, or lethargic and depressed." I think of the countless turtles I've moved from their suicide treks to the yellow line, and how they tuck in as soon as I touch them. I look at the volunteer. "I obviously have a lot to learn about turtles if you are telling me we can assess such a thing..." She laughed. "Oh yeah. You'll see."
And sure enough, as soon as she pulls 10-1496 from his cage, he pops his head out, stares intently, looks completely in tune with what's going on. His eyes are sunken in, which is a sign of dehydration, but not unusual. I am struck by his papery skin, which she says is typical. We weigh him, and then place him in a second box which we've filled with an inch of water, that is carefully poured to make sure it's between 75 and 80 degrees. He's meant to soak in there for 20 minutes every day, since turtles don't get their hydration from drinking--they get it soaking. This turtle came with a shell injury and is marked "Cannot be released" because he is also missing a leg.
And so I began my rhythm of taking the turtles out of their cages, placing them in their soaking bins, and cleaning their primary cages, which means changing newspaper, replacing water dishes, replacing food dishes. On my first visit, it was not yet spring, and the turtle boxes sat on heating pads. Today, as we prepare them for post-hibernation release, the heating pads have been removed. They were also much more active today.
Last time, I met my favorite, "Wild Red," the red guy who, once I replaced him in his primary cage, began climbing on his hide box so he could ssssssllliiiiiiide down it--over and over. Today he was flipping himself over, swimming aggressively in the water, climbing on everything he could to get out of the box. Throughout today's cage cleanings, there were sounds of scritching, climbing, flipping, pushing, nudging, bumping, and insistent escape plans being formed.
Someone called about a goose who'd been found limping on a busy Raleigh road. They brought her in, and I got to help with the initial exam. As long as by "help" you mean sit in silence and watch, trying hard not to get in the way. I was really thrilled that they let me sit in--I had assumed they would leave that work to the experts, but they were totally cool about letting me "help." The goose was obviously stressed and might have a broken hip. We gave her fluids, anti-inflammatories, and pain meds. They we put her in the ICU until the NC goose experts could come and get her.
When I first got in today, I thought I would get straight to work on the turtles, but I was also let in to the ICU where we had a pileated woodpecker (huge and gorgeous) in a large cage, and the mocking bird brought in yesterday by Becky, the volunteer I was working with today. The mocking bird was "young and stupid," we're guessing, because Becky and her boyfriend were trying hard NOT to hit him with their car, but he was just hellbent on hitting that grate and they had to delay their grocery shopping to bring him to the clinic. Silly birds. But he was gorgeous and full of attitude and looked every bit like the mom in the "Are you my mother?" book, but without the scarf and purse.
I also peaked in on the black racer snake who has nearly fully recovered from his injuries and thought of the green guy I found (healthy and well) in my living room the other day.
The morning shifts also include preparing the turtle food dishes--little servings of tomato, squash, zucchini, scrambled egg, berries, kale, parrot food (soaked first in water to soften it) and omnivore diet (also soaked). At the end of the shift, everything is carefully scrubbed and soaked in kennesol, a strong veterinary-grade disinfectant. As I forced myself to think carefully about every surface I touched (or more often, didn't touch), and to think so hard about cross-contamination, and as I cut the food into little teeny tiny squares, I thought of the delightful contrast between here and Carolina Tiger Rescue. Going from some of the largest, most aggressive creatures on the planet, to the tiniest, most vulnerable... From the wildest animals native to the literal jungles of Asia and the planes of Africa, to the fellow city-dwellers who hang out in my backyard. I thought about the blocks of ice popped out of the tiger water dishes every winter morning, to the 78-degree mark on the thermometer of the turtle water pitchers. I thought about the feeding sticks at Carolina Tiger Rescue, which we use over and over, with the raw chicken and pork juices on the end, and the 50 different times I scrubbed my hands with sanitizer in one shift at the clinic. And I thought about the efforts being made to save the birds at the clinic while remembering the story of Romeo snatching a snack as it flew by.
I guess eventually all the little pieces of my life make up some unified puzzle. Or maybe it really is just a mishmash of crazy things.